Where is My Subjectivity? Techno-Imagery, Femininity & Desire

Recently, feminine desire has received a lot of attention in the popular press. In 2009, two feature-length articles were published in the New York Times Magazine that focused on the phenomenon of diagnosably-low sexual desire in women,1 and, since then, stories of the elusive, complex, unwieldy, inherently responsive or submission-oriented, and sometimes simply weak or absent nature of feminine desire have proliferated in the mainstream media,2 published medical research,3 and popular neuroscience.4

One subcategory of female sexual dysfunction, called hypoactive sexual desire disorder (HSDD), is sometimes studied with the help of an instrument called a vaginal photoplethysmograph. This device is inserted into the vagina and used to detect blood flow and muscular contractions (also known as vasocongestion). It is used to produce an “objective” measure of desire and thus can help determine whether a woman’s sexual problems are “psychological” or “physiological.” If a woman’s arousal can be detected via the photoplethysmograph, then the scientist who is doing the measuring can make the claim that her lack of libido is “all in her head.” This reading takes the form of a fluctuating line on a graph–when desire increases, the line goes up; when desire decreases, the line goes down. An image is produced that shows whether the test subject is capable of being physically aroused or not–and so the device functions kind of like a polygraph, or a lie detector test.5

In the studies cited in the New York Times Magazine articles, scientists intent on unlocking the secrets of feminine desire conclude that women are innately more sexually “receptive” than men, with the implication that women need men with their high libidos and genital focus to awaken their sleeping sexuality. Based on their positive vasocongestive responses to watching different types of pornography in the clinic (responses in the form of detected stimulation by porn that includes bonobos having sex), some scientists have gone so far as to claim that, clinically, women do not have any sexual orientation at all–they are turned on by everything. Further, these researchers argue that this “‘rudderless’ system of reflexive physiological arousal”6 is a built-in protective mechanism for women. Why do women need to be protected by being easily aroused, by everything? Well–fitting nicely with the grand narratives put forward by popular interpretations of evolutionary psychology research–because being turned on by everything means that it won’t hurt as much when women are raped (something that is bound to happen when men are “hardwired” to spread their seed).

These are the tales we read in the mainstream media, popular non-fiction press, and even in some purportedly academic publications7–tales that tell us that we are and have always been cavemen and cavewomen, only a few millennia away from being completely “uncivilized.” And these stories about a primitive and rigidly gendered sexuality hardwired deep in our brains have real consequences–for how we understand sexual difference and sexual orientation, and for how desire is measured, managed, and modulated. Some scientists invested in unearthing this primordial drive suggest that most women can be physically aroused in the laboratory even if they say they are not turned on by their own partners, or that they can be turned on physically–with their partners, in the lab, or even by themselves–and not realize it mentally (at least not at first). This “desire discrepancy”–between women’s subjective accounts of their desire and the objective measurements of their arousal–was initially instantiated by research that assessed physiological measures such as vaginal pulse amplitude and heart rate, which were garnered and imaged through vaginal photoplethysmography.8 Now, image-measures of desire produced not only by photoplethysmographs, but by neural mapping techniques and brain-imaging technologies such as EEG, MRI, fMRI, and PET proliferate, and serve as evidence for the very different sexual response patterns of men and women, the different patterns exhibited by “normal” women and “dysfunctional” women, and the chasm between subjective desire and objective arousal for individual female test subjects.9 Although most scientists would not argue that women unwittingly want to have sex with apes, some have argued that much of “what is judged unappealing does, nevertheless, turn women on.”10

And much experimental and applied psychology research (including research conducted by members of the DSM-V sub-work group on sexual disorders) supports a less patronizing, yet still potentially problematic version of not necessarily clueless or unwitting feminine desire, but an absent-unless-triggered or receptive feminine desire.11

What we are ultimately offered then is evidence of the truth of feminine desire, feminine sexuality, and femininity itself–a truth that women themselves might not have access to, that they might have to learn. This truth is the legacy of a certain evolutionary narrative; it arrives as an historically produced (gender relations and sex worked better this way for our primitive cave people ancestors–so they adapted) yet somehow deeply innate sexuality (but we’ve been this way forever–it’s “hardwired”). It is an ancient without that persists primally within, a fleshed milieu in which feminine receptivity is always ripe for the taking by masculine aggression. But it is only when this evolutionary narrative is paired with powerful and pervasive, contemporary, cutting-edge research on desire discrepancies and feminine triggerability from the realms of experimental psychology, health, and neuroscience that it becomes ultra-intelligible, yet paradoxically and insidiously even more invisible or at least easier to ignore, assume, or take for granted.12

In popular renditions of sexually differentiated desire, we see an affinity between the technologies of neuroscience and evolutionary psychology, and we see these used in concert to measure desire and tell us what we should want, how, and why. But to what end are these technologies used alongside each other, and what is this battery of testing meant to tell us about desire, interest, and arousal, and the disconnects and overlaps among them? A study conducted in the fall of 2010 suggested that women with high or normal libidos have “different brains” than women diagnosed with low desire. This study was widely cited and used to provide evidence that “certain areas of the brain that normally light up when thinking about sex fail to do so in women with HSDD, while other areas that don’t normally light up, do.13 Based on his analysis of nineteen women diagnosed with HSDD and seven women with “normal sexual function,” Dr. Diamond, the primary investigator for the study, concluded that “being able to identify physiological changes, to me provides significant evidence that HSDD is a true disorder as opposed to a societal construct.”14 But, if we take the technologies and tenets of neuroscience seriously, and try to think beyond their popular incarnations, to plasticity, cortical remapping, and synaptic pruning or neuro-structural re-assembly, why must we continue to hold “true disorders” and “societal constructs” apart?

A quick glance at many of the afore-mentioned studies might make some critics worry that a woman’s own subjective analysis of her desire is not adequately being considered, or that her sexuality runs the risk of being medicalized or capitalized upon. When notions of neutrally organized feminine “rudderlessness” are paired with newer research that suggests that women are “‘wired’ to find sexual submission arousing”15 some readers might even worry that scientists are inadvertently making the case for the immutable nature of rape, or at least a justification for sexual coercion as natural. I am certainly concerned with these issues, but what I am also concerned with is the patient’s own interpretation, experience, and living of image-measures like brain scans and photoplethysmographic reports, other physiologic, objective results that patients (and non-patients) regularly interface with, and even the stories we read in the news: When does that desire become her desire? Has it always been her desire? Will it remain that way forever? And if these pasts and futures are within us, is this because of primitive-hardwiring-as-sexual-destiny or is there something about the world that interacts with the plasticity of the body, of the brain–a spasmodic and iterative reverberation that has always brought the normative to life? When thinking about the living of image-measures and desire-maps, we may usefully consider the originary technicity of embodiment always in the making, or what Mark Hansen has called technogenesis16 of brain and world flesh that are constantly being refigured transductively, chiasmically, through an irreducible intertwining that is always both disruptive and generative.

Much work has been done in the last few decades to account for the way subjectivities are configured within, through, and against the world around us–not simply “discursively” in a linguistic sense that might be associated with a more reductive social constructionist paradigm, but dynamically, materially, affectively, and ontologically17–at the level of the body itself and its relations with other bodies and entities, in a multitude of spaces and temporalities. Of particular relevance to a consideration of desire and its simultaneous regulation and proliferation is Rebecca Jordan-Young’s critique of Brain Organization Theory.18 In her recent work, Jordan-Young shows how the trope of sexually differentiated neural organization or gendered “hardwiring” is actually not supported by scientific research in the domains of neuroscience and experimental psychology. This type of critical analysis can help point us to the ways in which the body itself is a psychosocial variable. We may further consider how individuals experience their own biology through cultural narratives, their relationships with other people, animals, and objects, and in tandem with larger geopolitical forces and movements. The body cannot be reduced to its matter, its consciousness, its memories, or its discursive constitutions; I want to argue the same for desire, which is always embodied, but necessarily relationally.

To this end, drawing from work from the realms of phenomenology, neurophenomenology, and psychoanalysis may be fruitful for re-envisioning desire in the current moment. Tired tropes of sexual dimorphism will hopefully run their course in our cultural lexicon, and in order to adequately conceive of a “visceral-social economy”19 or, more radically, a visceral-social anatomyassemblage, or network20 of desire it will be necessary to conceive of desire’s openness and complexity–not just for women, but for all desiring beings. What we want haunts us, and one of the most common complaints of women lacking sexual desire is that they desperately “want to want.”21 This specter of desire that haunts and proliferates but is sometimes not directed at the “correct” object with the “appropriate” aim might not arise from some deeply rooted, primitive, and uniquely feminine drive everlasting, but instead from a “subjectifying [process]…which singularizes each human body by successive incorporations…[and which elicits] subjectivity as a result, in continuous movement, of adaptation and regulation.”22 For neurophenomenologist Bernard Andrieu, this subjectifying process is an iterative building-up in which “the natural surroundings have to actualize and direct the plastic potentialities of the brain in construction.”23 In his analysis of brain functioning and subjective autonomy, Andrieu conceptualizes a dynamic materialism founded on the incorporative relationship between the flesh of the brain and the flesh of the world, following Merleau-Ponty in his 1957-1958 La Nature lectures at the College de France. Andrieu understands the subjectifying process to be built on the interaction between mother and child, and thus implicitly follows Melanie Klein with her emphasis on the constitutive yet open nature of phantasy–which privileges inter/intracorporeal, embodied, animal-human instincts and relations between inner and outer world as the basis of psychic formation and imagination over a Freudian psychical reality based in contained, focused, human-specific drives. If we take the embodied, inter/intrasubjective, incorporative, adaptive, and constantly re-regulating aspects of [neural] subjectivity seriously, musn’t we also know that desire is a part of this complex process that can and will be different–different from space to space, from moment to moment, from relation to relation? Now, with advances in neuroscience, tropes of evolutionary psychology abounding, and the pervasive and encompassing nature of post-Fordist global capitalism which increasingly seeks to harvest bodies and their capacities, what desires will be elicited as new actors in this unfolding network? What images, objects, relationships, affects, emotions, touches, feelings, stories, and subjectivities will be produced and productive from/within this network? Brain scans, vaginal electrode reports, drugs, therapeutic interventions, behavioral modifications, bodies, and individuals’ histories, traumas, partners, strangers, and families must come together on the same plane as they interact in the world. When so many organic and non-organic actors are in the mix, the reductive nature of a hardwired, dimorphically gendered, evolutionary theory of desire cannot be supported.

Coole and Frost remind us that an adequate phenomenological materialism must “emphasize the active, self-transformative, practical aspects of corporeality as it participates in relationships of power.”24 When considering neuroscience and its role in the regulation and proliferation of desire (specifically feminine desire today), we must wonder: how will individuals work on their desire, by what means, and to what end in this particular moment of technogenesis, or in this specific instance of “originary yet historico-technically differentiated coevolution”25–in this case, with neurotechnics? Or, more broadly, how will feminine patient-subjects work on a variety of aspects of themselves and be worked upon as they increasingly come into contact with techno-imagery and other objects, devices, and measures? What bodies and worlds might be brought together through desire-mapping by photoplethysmographs, EEG, MRI, fMRI, and PET? Sexuality, sociality, science, desire, genitals, and brains may be reintroduced via these technologies which see and which touch. This seeing and touching is powerfully invested and invested with power, and it is full of the promise of desire and its excavation; thus, there is much at stake in our neurocultures.


Alyson K. Spurgas is a doctoral candidate in the Sociology program and recently received her certificate from the Women’s Studies program at The City University of New York’s Graduate Center. Her research explores the intersections of science and technology studies, gender studies, historical, social, and critical analyses of science and medicine, and the most innovative empirical work in these domains, with a deep commitment to interdisciplinarity. Her dissertation, titled “Circuits of Desire: Neuroimaging, Evolutionary Femininity, and Therapeutic Learning” analyzes the production of femininity via neuroimaging and therapeutic technologies which are used to diagnose and treat low or absent desire in women.

  1. Daniel Bergner, “Women Who Want to Want.” The New York Times Magazine, 29 November 2009. <http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/29/magazine/29sex-t.html&gt.
  2. For an example see: Jennifer Abbasi, “Why Women Lose Interest in Sex.” Live Science. 1 February 2012. <http://www.livescience.com/18233-women-lose-sexual-desire.html&gt.
  3. For an example see: Jan L. Shifren et al, “Sexual Problems and Distress in United States Women: Prevalence and Correlates,” Obstetrics & Gynecology 2008, 112:970-978.
  4. For an example see: Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam, A Billion Wicked Thoughts: What the World’s Largest Experiment Reveals about Human Desire (New York: Dutton, 2011).
  5. For an elaboration of the “significant overlap (for women) between desire and arousal” and her recommendations for a transition from HSDD to “Sexual Interest/Arousal Disorder” (SI/AD) because of this overlap, see Lori Brotto, “The DSM Diagnostic Criteria for Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder in Women,” Archives of Sexual Behavior 2010, 39:221-239.
  6. Bergner, “What Do Women Want?”
  7. Randy Thornhill and Craig T. Palmer, A Natural History of Rape: The Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2000).
  8. PJ Morokoff and JR Heiman, “Effects of Erotic Stimuli on Sexually Functional and Dysfunctional Women: Multiple Measures Before and After Sex Therapy,” Behavioral Research & Therapy 1980, 18:127-137.
  9. S. Karama, “Areas of Brain Activation in Males and Females During Viewing of Erotic Film Excerpts,” Human Brain Mapping 2002, 16:1-13; Kenneth Maravilla and Claire Yang, “Magnetic Resonance Imaging and the Female Sexual Response: Overview of Techniques, Results, and Future Directions,” Journal of Sexual Medicine 2008, 5:1559-1571; Yoram Vardi, Elliot Sprecher, Ilan Gruenwald, David Yarnitsky, Irena Gartman, and Yelena Granovsky, “The P300 Event-Related Potential Technique for Libido Assessment in Women with Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder,” Journal of Sexual Medicine 2009, 6:1688-1695.
  10. Bergner, “What Do Women Want?”
  11. Rosemary Basson et al, “Assessment and Management of Women’s Sexual Dysfunctions: Problematic Desire and Arousal,” Journal of Sexual Medicine 2005, 2:291-300; Ana Carvalheira et al, “Women’s Motivations for Sex: Exploring the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Fourth Edition, Text Revision Criteria for Hypoactive Sexual Desire and Female Sexual Arousal Disorders,” Journal of Sexual Medicine 2010, 7:1454-1463; Brotto, “The DSM Diagnostic Criteria for Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder in Women.”
  12. I argue that this pairing is especially dangerous when it is extended by the research of those on the DSM-V sub-work group for sexual disorders. Although many of their recommendations are benevolent and seem to truly have the interest of women’s health in mind, they may have serious unintended consequences in light of the power and far global reach of psychological disorders such as HSDD and SI/AD.
  13. Stephen Adams, “Women with Low Libidos ‘Have Different Brains,'” The Telegraph October 2010, <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/healthnews/8086836/Women-with-low-libidos-have-different-brains.html&gt.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ogi Ogas, “Why Feminism is the Anti-Viagra: The Neural Circuitry of Dominance and Submission,” Psychology Today Online, 9 April 2011, <http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/billion-wicked-thoughts/201104/why-feminism-is-the-anti-viagra&gt.
  16. Mark B.N. Hansen, Bodies in Code: Interfaces with Digital Media (New York: Routledge, 2006).
  17. For examples, see Evelyn Fox Keller, Reflections on Gender and Science (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985) and Keywords in Evolutionary Biology (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998); Sandra Harding, The Science Question in Feminism (Cornell University Press, 1986); Elizabeth Grosz, Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press) and The Nick of Time: Politics, Evolution, and the Untimely (Durham: Duke University Press); and more recently Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007), Patricia Ticineto Clough and Jean Halley (eds), The Affective Turn: Theorizing the Social (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007), Evelyn Fox Keller, The Mirage of a Space Between Nature and Nurture (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), and Diana Coole and Samantha Frost (eds), New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010).
  18. Rebecca M. Jordan Young, Brain Storm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Differences (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010).
  19. Coole and Frost, p.16
  20. This and the following discussion of networks of desire is heavily influenced by theoretical tools from the realm of Actor Network Theory or ANT; as an example see Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).
  21. Bergner, “Women Who Want to Want.”
  22. Bernard Andrieu, “Brains in the Flesh: Prospects for a Neurophenomenology,” Janus Head 2006, 9:135-155, p.137
  23. Ibid, p.148
  24. Coole and Frost, p.19
  25. Hansen, p.20

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